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Saharan Frontiers
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The Sahara has long been portrayed as a barrier that divides the Mediterranean world from Africa proper and isolates the countries of the Maghrib from their southern and eastern neighbors. Rather than viewing the desert as an isolating barrier, this volume takes up historian Fernand Braudel’s description of the Sahara as "the second face of the Mediterranean." The essays recast the history of the region with the Sahara at its center, uncovering a story of densely interdependent networks that span the desert’s vast expanse. They explore the relationship between the desert’s "islands" and "shores" and the connections and commonalities that unite the region. Contributors draw on extensive ethnographic and historical research to address topics such as trade and migration; local notions of place, territoriality, and movement; Saharan cities; and the links among ecological, regional, and world-historical approaches to understanding the Sahara.

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For the sake of clarity, words in Berber, Arabic, or other West African languages have been transliterated according to the simplest available method in each case. For Arabic, we have adopted a simplified transliteration showing long vowels with a macron (awl d) and indicating the ‘ayn (shar ‘a), but we have not used diacritics to indicate emphatic consonants. Hamza is indicated when it occurs mid-word (q ’id), in a phrase (bi’smi-ll h), or at the end of a plural form (shuraf ’). Place names and proper names are given in the most familiar form in use in the region, elsewhere in the English-language literature, and on the most widely available maps (especially Michelin map 741, Africa North and West). We depart from widespread conventions only in a few cases for precision of transliteration, e.g., qsar instead of ksar, qs r instead of ksur/ksour, shaykh instead of sheikh/cheikh.



Time and Space in the Sahara

Judith Scheele and James McDougall

And much I mus’d on legends quaint and old

Which whilome won the hearts of all on Earth

Toward their brightness, ev’n as flame draws air;

But had their being in the heart of Man

As air in th’life of flame: and thou wert then

A centr’d glory-circled Memory,

Divinest Atlantis, whom the waves

Have buried deep, and thou of later name

Imperial Eldorado roof ’d with gold:

Shadows to which, despite all shocks of Change,

All on-set of capricious Accident,

Men clung with yearning Hope which would not die.


In the early nineteenth century, when the young Tennyson submitted his poem Timbuctoo to a poetry competition launched by the chancellor of Cambridge University, attempts to reach the fabled city of gold in the heart of the Sahara had become a vivid expression of the rivalry between France and England, the two great nations that were then vying for commercial supremacy on the African continent (Heffernan 2001; Davoine 2003). The topic chosen by the chancellor clearly reflected political concerns and patriotic enthusiasm as well as a longstanding fascination with the Sahara. Tennyson had first composed the poem with the title Armageddon, but found he hardly had to change its content once the title was amended. And indeed, from a European point of view in the Romantic age, the hill of Megiddo and the city of Timbuktu stood for much the same thing: they both mattered not so much for what they were, but for how they were imagined, as sites of timeless truth, objects of longing for deep antiquity and of melancholic reflection on its decadence. Even in the more ordinarily hardheaded calculations of European imperial policy, the Sahara was largely left to poetic license. Until the discovery of oil in the mid-1950s, the region figured more as a status symbol than as a physical region of human habitation, or—once the long-standing perception of northwest Africa’s interior as a commercial El Dorado awaiting capture proved wholly mythical—even as an economic stake in the scramble for Africa.¹ For the French army, the vast and open spaces of the Sahara, conquered and unified under military rule, were a stage for the display of grandiose, transcontinental territorial power, gained and maintained by reckless courage and political skill in the face of the most unforgiving environment on earth. British statesmen, on the other hand, mocked the millions of acres of light soil which overly romantic French gullibility (and Britain’s earlier-established trading position in the Niger delta and its hinterlands) had made into the unprofitable semblance of an empire.

Such images of the Sahara as an empty stage for European agency, courage, and imagination were, of course, much older than Tennyson’s poem (Mollat de Jourdin 1984), and also outlived the Sahara’s real inaccessibility. The fantasy of the Sahara as a pristine space untouched by time, inveterately hostile to all but the most dauntless, lived on long after the nineteenth-century reports of exploratory missions by Dixon Denham and Hugh Clapperton (1826), Heinrich Barth (1857–1858), and Gustav Nachtigal (1879–1889) had provided ample documentation of the existing realities of states and cities through which safe passage could be gained from Tripoli to Agadez, Sokoto, and Timbuktu, and of the functioning trade routes along which they traveled. In April 1881, a French newspaper reporting the loss of the Flatters mission described the Ahaggar massif, where Flatters and his soldiers met their end, as a land absolutely desolate, sterile, and, so to speak, a desert in the full meaning of the word.… In these cursed regions, to which so many of our men of science and civilization have fallen victim, one must reckon with the ferocious passions of bloodthirsty populations.² Twenty years later, with the region firmly in French hands, André Gide could still find the bliss of savage authenticity and vitality among the streams and palm groves of Biskra, on the desert’s northern edge.³ In 1920, the first trans-Saharan automobile rally was organized by Citroën, and Saharan crossings by airplane were attempted; by the 1930s, these had become common, and trading missions were launched from southern Algeria toward the Niger bend. In the 1940s, regular trans-Saharan truck routes were established, linking French West Africa to Algeria (Guitart 1989). At the same time, the Sahara became a destination for curious tourists.⁴ And although most rebellious Saharan tribes had been subdued, and the first desert crossings by automobile and airplane had literally laid the Sahara open to the European gaze by the 1920s, the aura of mystique and of real and imagined dangers found new and wider expression in literature and film. It was in the Sahara that the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry encountered the little prince (1943). The American heroes of Paul Bowles’s debut novel The Sheltering Sky (1949; filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1990 with Debra Winger and John Malkovich) could still be confronted with their own psychological anguish and alienation when facing the emptiness of the desert years later. In his review of Bowles’s novel, Tennessee Williams (1949) saw the empty desert as an allegory of the Sahara of moral nihilism in which he saw the race of man … wandering blindly. Michael Ondaatje adapted the real-life geographer and writer Làszlo Almàsy as the wandering, adventurous, and passionate central character of his Booker Prize–winning 1992 novel, The English Patient, the 1996 film version of which won nine Oscars. The Gilf Kebir, on the borders of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya, considered one of the last remaining suitable locations for adventurous exploration in the romantic style when it was already being documented with cars and aircraft by Almàsy and others in the 1930s (Wingate 1934; Almàsy 1939), is still written up today as an exceptionally remote and romantic destination for European adventure tourists. It also remains a lawless region where those same tourists are liable to be held for ransom by unidentified bandits.⁵ In the twenty-first century, in the age of satellite phones and affordable GPS, the Sahara of popular imagination remains both mysterious and empty, a place where, if we believe specialized tour operators, we are confronted with our own true being, where the sun pulls us towards the imagined horizon of the unsubdued desert.⁶ For Hollywood—thanks in part to the well-developed movie location industries of southern Morocco and Tunisia—the Sahara provides a ready-made backdrop for tales of adventure, anarchy, dictatorship, ruthlessness, and the unlikeliest of age-old relics, where (imported) madness and large-scale destruction find their natural home.⁷ Even extraterrestrial fantasies seem at home here: the Tunisian Saharan town of Tatawin first gave its name to Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars (1977) before becoming the supposed location of sinister alien disease experiments in the X Files movie (1998).

Hence the paradox of our (Euro-Americans’) relationship with the Sahara: it is an overly familiar symbol of the unknown, an empty stage to display our own courage and fears, but one that remains threateningly beyond control; it is quintessentially the space of mystery, timelessness, and an eternal succession of catastrophes whose root causes and dynamic impetus must come from elsewhere. This is as apparent in contemporary news coverage and Hollywood flicks as it was in nineteenth-century poetry. Beyond travelers’ fantasies, the contemporary Sahara is mainly known even to relatively well-informed European and North American audiences as a site of tragedy, inhabited by nameless (and usually numberless) victims of humanitarian catastrophes or natural disasters: insurgency in Algeria; uprising and civil war in Libya; genocide and slavery in Sudan; military putsches in Chad and Mauritania; Islamist bombings in Morocco; drought, famine, and rebellion in Niger and Mali. Behind these sometimes only dimly perceived states and their intractable problems lurk more familiar global threats: desertification, terrorism, waves of clandestine trans-Saharan migrants and climate change refugees, all set against a more generally unpleasant background noise of extreme poverty. The Sahara covers parts of ten countries, four of which are counted among the poorest in the world, while at least three others are seen as more or less willing havens for Islamist threats.⁸ The Sahara is thus a place not only of fascination with purity, but also of obsession with danger, a place whose emptiness is all too readily filled with the nightmares of contemporary Western imaginations. Of course one cannot blame the media for favoring the spectacular—and of course, many parts of the Sahara have indeed been shaken by a series of political, social, and ecological crises.⁹ Yet, clearly, this is not all that can be said about the region, with its almost 3.2 million square miles (a quarter of the African continent), several million inhabitants, and corresponding variety of languages, cultures, societies, and livelihoods; settlement patterns; human ecologies; sophisticated agriculture; complex transport systems; and striking capacity to innovate.

This book is about that other Sahara, not the empty waste of romantic imagination but the vast and highly differentiated space—a social and political as well as an ecologically challenging geographic space—in which Saharan peoples and, increasingly, incomers from other parts of Africa, live, work, and move. It is primarily about the contemporary Sahara, about key aspects of the ways of life of its inhabitants, and about how the changes of recent times have shaped or been resisted by them, with a focus on the ways in which Saharan peoples have moved through time and space, and on the limits, both long-established and recent, to those movements. It also places our understanding of today’s Sahara in a longer historical context, for the northwest corner of Africa is no more empty of its own history than it is of people, culture, or resources.

Barrier, Bridge, or Borderland?

It has often been assumed that the Sahara has primarily acted as a barrier, dividing the Mediterranean world from real (i.e., sub-Saharan) Africa, isolating the countries of North Africa from their southern and eastern neighbors, and demarcating entirely distinct areas of study for scholars and students. The concentration of northwest Africa’s major cities, political centers, and densest populations on or near its northern, western, and southern edges and the establishment of frontiers that created its contemporary states have tended to relegate the Sahara to a space of marginality. Academic categories, dividing fields of research and literature between Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Arab/Islamic, and African studies, have often replicated the region’s political divisions and reproduced this view of the relationship between North and West Africa, and of the Sahara as a void between them.

Another view suggests that the Sahara has never constituted a serious obstacle to cross-regional interaction but has instead furthered it: it has been less a barrier than a bridge in African history (Zartman 1963; Lydon 2005). Yet despite renewed interest in patterns of trans-Saharan trade and migration, now fueled by security concerns over clandestine migration and international terrorism, more far-reaching, conceptually innovative, and empirically detailed research on both the shared world of and the boundaries between North and West Africa has not been much pursued. Though scholars (e.g., E. A. McDougall 2005a) have noted the desirability of work that would examine the connections between North and West Africa, few studies (exceptions being Grégoire and Schmitz 2000; Marfaing and Wippel 2004; Lydon 2009; Austen 2010) have systematically pursued and enriched this agenda. Historically deep and enduringly vigorous aspects of life in the region, which arguably not only connect, but create the various, complementary, and interdependent spaces of northwest Africa, have attracted little attention. And such research as has been done has often privileged conceptual frameworks imposed from the outside, viewing the region, implicitly, from a synoptic or from a coastal viewpoint (from above or from the outside in), rather than studying movement, connection, and the creation of place and space from within the region itself, either socially from the bottom up or spatially from the inside out. Studies of the Sahara as a bridge have often ended up reiterating the older notion of the region as an empty interior, a gap that must simply be crossed. They have continued to focus, for example, on trans-Saharan rather than on intra-Saharan trade or migration, or, though to a lesser extent, on the translocal spread of Islam from Mediterranean Africa to West Africa rather than on the local logics of societies in between that have historically underpinned Islamization in the region, or on the region’s own contributions to Islam. This approach, despite its intention to open up study of the region across an African divide, has tended to perpetuate isolatable ideas of place, space, race, and culture as belonging to distinct worlds of North and West Africa, leaving us without a way of grasping the subtler realities of regional interdependence.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote of the Sahara as the second face of the Mediterranean (1972 [1966]). Although Braudel’s work was enormously influential in other areas, his perceptive suggestion about the Sahara has generally been ignored. One aim of this book is to explore the ways in which we might recast our understanding of the Sahara by seeing the desert and its margins as a region composed of densely interdependent networks not only crossing, but created by the desert and the relationship between its islands and shores. Recent work on Mediterranean history (Horden and Purcell 2000) has located the dynamics of connectivity that created the sea’s distinctive, long-term historical unity in the symbiosis of a managed scarcity of resources among precarious and intensely fragmented ecological micro-regions with the density and persistence of interactions between them (see also Horden this volume). This book investigates whether a similar set of conditions (ecological precariousness, productive specialization, and intensive resource management producing commercial interdependence; and the organized—often violent—mobility of people and commodities, ideas and practices) can be seen at work in the Sahara, thus recasting it as a dynamic space of human history and change over the long term and at the present time. Our focus on connection and commonality does not, however, mean flattening out hard surfaces of conflict and disparity, nor overlooking the very real barriers to free movement, whether social or physical, that are arguably increasingly important today in the region. The title of this book evokes both the openness and the friction of movement, the porosity but also the sharpness of frontiers in a region that has often been viewed merely as peripheral, but that is perhaps better thought of as a global borderland (J. McDougall this volume).

Map 0.1. Northwest Africa. J. BRACHET 2010

Contemporary Saharan Africa

The Sahara is perhaps the fastest changing, most dynamic, and wealthiest region of the African continent. Urbanization has been rapid since the 1970s, as has demographic growth, caused by in-migration rather than high birth rates.d 2005a), the past variety of external sources of investment are now marginalized by the economic and political clout of Maghrebi states, whose oil-fueled financial resources have dwarfed any revenue that might be made from agriculture, causing people to abandon outlying oases in favor of administrative centers and their immediate surroundings. In the Sahel, ecological and political changes have led to new patterns of residence and economic exploitation, and even here, state revenues and development aid, alongside booming cross-border trade, have become key to local power struggles and livelihoods (Nijenhuis 2003; Giuffrida 2005; Grémont this volume). Yet part of the reason that Saharan cities are growing faster than many others on the continent has to be sought beyond the Sahara itself, as is shown by such cities’ growing population diversity, including Chinese workers, Middle Eastern teachers, Malay migrants, Pakistani preachers, European tourists, Mauritanian traders, Malian tailors, Cameroonian builders, Nigerian fraudsters, and Ghanaian barbers, alongside national in-migrants from the north (Spiga 2002; Boesen and Marfaing 2007). While images of a uniquely Arabic- and Tamasheq-speaking Sahara of taciturn camel herders have little or no historic underpinning, they certainly falter when confronted with the observable multilingualism of contemporary Saharan cities and oases; their Sahelian restaurants, music, and tailors; and other ways of organizing urban space that indicate, to many real Saharans, their own growing marginality—but that also offer them lucrative economic prospects (Choplin, Brachet this volume).

Most of these developments are due in one way or another to the Sahara’s main natural resource. Libya and Algeria possess some of the world’s most important oil and gas reserves, much of which remains to be fully exploited. However, although this means that oil dominates economic policy, leading to an almost complete reliance on hydrocarbon exports¹¹ and internally to a growing dependency on state resources, the oil wells and concomitant investments in infrastructure have led to a diversification of local economic activities, especially in the service sector. While most of Algeria’s nomadic population have settled, the raising of livestock remains profitable, and large herds are hurried across the desert in vehicles as soon as rain is reported to have fallen in any particular place, thus supplying the urban market in the Tell (the plateau region north of the Saharan Atlas mountains). Livestock imports from the Sahelian countries are similarly booming, thereby often reinventing older commercial patterns: Algerian traders with longstanding connections in northern Mali employ Tuareg drivers to smuggle herds north; in-migrants from the garrison town of Bechar near the Algerian border with Morocco make a fortune by trading in Malian camels destined for illegal export to Morocco; and Libyans have heavily invested in livestock kept by Arabic-speaking groups in northern Niger. Other kinds of extralegal trading activities are equally profitable: gasoline, foodstuffs, and building materials are exported south in great quantities, often accompanied by and complementing more traditional exchanges of dates and grains. Cigarettes and guns circulate on different routes, but with similar ease.¹² Kabyle and Sahelian restaurants have sprung up throughout the Algerian Sahara, alongside other specialized services catering to the local economy or to the aspirations of a growing middle class: mobile phones, computer equipment and repairs, garages, repair shops, satellite communication systems. New construction is booming in order to house state functionaries and the northerners keen to make a fortune or to invest in real estate; a posting to the Algerian border region, long considered a dreadful misfortune among Algerian civil servants, is now seen as a unique chance for upward social mobility and the accumulation of wealth.

Oil wealth, of course, like everything else, is unevenly distributed in the Sahara. Although some oil has been discovered in Niger and Mali, the main producer countries are those of the Maghreb, and the capacity of nation-states to convert subsoil resources into state revenue varies from country to country, generally declining as one moves south. This means that the Sahara is marked by a strong division of labor and much regional migration: building sites and gardens in southern Algeria and Libya tend to be worked by Sahelian migrants, while trade networks frequently reproduce regional inequalities and hierarchies which are now backed by national legal regimes. Alongside regional migrants, citizens of West and Central African nations attempt to make their way north, and often stay for considerable periods of time in the Sahara, where they are obliged to find their own position in local economies, sometimes with Sahelian migrants acting as intermediaries, and always with national security forces on their backs.¹³ Migration, in particular when criminalized by North African states, has led to a diversification of transportation networks and local services (telecommunications, money transfer) that cater to migrants who are stuck en route, or that feed on their labor (Brachet 2005, and this volume). As Sahelian dress has become fashionable among middle-class northern Algerians living in the south, its availability relies on complex networks that bind Malian importers and dyers, Arab traders, Tuareg drivers, Ghanaian tailors, and complacent Algerian border police together in one common enterprise of mutual dependency and various degrees of exploitation. This increased diversity is more than purely economic: many West and Central African immigrants are Christian, unashamedly so, and have given Algerian churches an unexpected (and perhaps not always welcome) impetus. Meanwhile, growing access to outside sources of knowledge, via radio, the internet, and satellite television, has led to a profound rethinking of Islam and of Islamic hierarchies in the area, encouraged by the presence of preachers, in particular from Pakistan (Lecocq and Schrijver 2007). While this can easily be read as an Islamization or even as an Islamist threat by Western observers, it is perhaps more properly described as part of a wider restructuring of patterns of knowledge transmission and of notions of legitimacy, both religious and political, that have run through all Saharan societies for centuries (see, e.g., Choplin, Grémont, Oussedik this volume).

Histories from the Inside Out

Very few of these developments are visible in the existing academic literature, especially in the English-speaking world, where one image of the Sahara continues to dominate: a deserted place, where the permanent struggle of humanity against nature has deprived people of one of their most human characteristics, namely, the ability to change and to creatively influence the course of events. Where the Sahara is granted any kind of historicity at all, historical time has been telescoped into one overwhelming impression of permanence. Airborne geographical explorers in the early twentieth century still liked to evoke Herodotus as their guide, and it seems to be taken for granted even among more recent writers that histories of the Sahara ought to start in prehistoric or at least Roman times (see, e.g., Bovill 1968, and even Lydon 2009). This is not to say that such long-term perspectives are necessarily flawed, but rather that permanence cannot be taken for granted but needs to be, here as elsewhere, problematized and explained—and that, here as elsewhere, we are more likely to find continuities of structures and patterns than of things. Conceptually linked to this is the relative absence of Saharans themselves from historical—but also from economic and even ecological—studies of the region. A newcomer to much of the writing on the Sahara might well infer that date palms—which, after all, cannot properly reproduce without human intervention—have a mysterious tendency to plant themselves, or that the long-established technology of the elaborate irrigation systems that underpin all oasis life exists as a kind of timeless given, rather than being the result of a long historical process of human ingenuity and constantly renewed labor.

This is certainly not due to the absence of historical sources, nor to any local or regional disregard for history. The Sahara has long been at least semiliterate, and some areas have a long-standing reputation for scholarship. History, if mainly in the form of genealogies or hagiographies, is crucial to local worldviews. The Sahara is dotted with local archives containing standard libraries mostly of a religious kind, but also notarial documents, letters, title deeds, collections of fatwas (Islamic judicial opinions), contracts, and records of irrigation works and other matters of municipal administration, which have quite simply been ignored by most researchers.¹⁴ Even the French colonial archives, which can be expected to yield much precious information about local economies and sociopolitical patterns of interaction, have not been properly explored. The reasons for this neglect therefore cannot merely be sought in the inaccessibility of such documentation, but rather in the conceptual frameworks employed, which leave little room for local studies—or rather, create a conceptual breach between local studies, which are often rooted in geography or anthropology and are concerned with remote and illiterate settled agriculturalists or nomadic pastoralists, paying little heed to regional connections or concerns, and historical studies that take a transregional approach, with a special emphasis on trade, but that often quite simply ignore local particularities. Hence, the long-standing emphasis on trans-Saharan trade implies a dearth of Saharan production, consumption, and agency. The current emphasis on trans-Saharan migration similarly assumes that the Sahara itself provides neither migrants nor their destination, despite the long-standing acknowledgment, for instance in the literature on slavery, that much trans-Saharan traffic has historically been directed into and not across the desert.¹⁵ In the same way, studies on the spread of Islam, the gradual imposition of shar ‘a (Islamic law), or Islamist conversions all conceive of their subjects of study as more or less uniform, one-way processes, in which the Sahara and its peoples are simply crossed over or acted upon from outside, rather than as a series of local negotiations with context-specific results and side effects, bounded by local interests and agency (see, e.g., Grandguillaume 1978; Layish 2005).¹⁶ Such views are unsurprising, given that the Sahara is usually seen as lying on the empty outer edge, rather than at the intersection, of distinct, well-established areas of expertise: Africa, meaning sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East or the Arab world, of which North Africa is still commonly taken to be a mere (relatively unimportant) appendage.¹⁷ This means that the Sahara falls through conceptual grids and lies outside of research projects, but it also means that as the regional specialists that all academic researchers are largely obliged to be, most scholars (and we include ourselves in this category) do not possess the necessary knowledge and skills to approach the Sahara on its own terms. How many Africanists think it necessary to study Arabic, for instance, and how many Arabists would seriously concentrate on any West African language? How many of either would get the time and funding to do so?

Yet Europeans and Americans by no means hold a monopoly over imagining the Sahara as an empty abode of savages. The Sahara’s own North and West African borderlands furnish such notions with equal insistence, forceful cultural implications, and added local color. Images of Saharan emptiness and inherent anarchy fed into colonial policies that were often continued by independent nation-states in the region. Although the Sahara straddles ten countries, it only contains one capital (that of Mauritania, Nouakchott). Despite its rapid demographic growth and increased in-migration, especially from the northern edge of the Sahara, only a small proportion of the residents of each nation would define themselves as Saharan, and those who do often feel marginalized as such. In Algeria, Saharans complain about the ongoing expropriation of their natural resources and have at times protested violently against their exclusion from national government and especially from oil revenues.¹⁸ However, if these populations are presented to a national audience at all, it is as a faceless group of submissive and backward beni oui-oui (compliant yes-men) with no political education or will.¹⁹ After all, most Algerian intellectuals (and harragas, clandestine trans-Mediterranean migrants) are more familiar with Paris or Cairo than with Tamanrasset. The Moroccan dynasty traces its origin to the Sahara, but despite the symbolic political importance of the kingdom’s Saharan provinces in the Seguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (the disputed western Sahara), modern Morocco clearly exists mainly elsewhere, north of the mountains, and remains much more interested in its northern than in its southern neighbors (Rebbo 1990). Mauritania and Libya, despite their rhetoric of rootedness in desert life and strident appeals to African unity, are mainly preoccupied with protecting their own national territories and wealth from their southern neighbors (Choplin 2008; Lemarchand 1998). In Mali and Niger, northern areas have been treated with suspicion since independence, declared to be military security zones, and used as political prisons (Bourgeot 1995; Boilley 1999). Throughout the Sahel, cleavages between north and south have been marked and often violent since independence. Rebellions have been frequent and often quelled with violence more than with promises of development and integration. More generally, national culture, as defined in political and cultural centers of production and decision making remote from the desert and as presented to the national public, largely excludes northern languages, people, and forms of livelihood, or reduces them to sites of particular, folkloric interest for foreign tourists (Lecocq 2010).

Ecology, Connectivity, and the Frontiers of Mobility

An even stronger reliance on national historiography and social sciences, then, will not do; neither will a quantitative increase in the kind of research that is already being undertaken. Clearly, we need to look for inspiration elsewhere. Approaches rooted in human ecology—in the relationship between human populations and their physical environment—have yielded valuable results in the study of Saharan subregions and might suggest concepts for approaching the Sahara as a whole.²⁰ From such a perspective, the Sahara appears first and foremost as an area marked by particularly scarce resources. Such resources are never given but are, rather, shaped by human interaction and ingenuity, thereby creating various micro-regions of sometimes extreme specialization and ecological precariousness; niches, in other words, that are cultural, social, and linguistic as much as they are properly ecological. But how conducive to an overall analysis of such a vast region can this attention to high degrees of micro-level local diversity possibly be? There are two possible answers to this objection. On the one hand, we need to take into account local perceptions of regional connections, and analyze how these relate to local practices. On the other, we need to ask whether the local is not potentially as fictional as the regional, or rather, whether one can exist without the other, especially in an area that is characterized by such a high degree of micro-regional specialization and hence large-scale, long-distance, and long-term patterns of connection and interdependence.

Just such an approach has been developed for the Mediterranean by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell (2000). In the Mediterranean, they argue, climatic and geographical conditions are such that small areas tend to specialize, and seasonal instability has to be taken for granted. Life depends on exchange or on connectivity, a term they borrow from mathematics and geography to denote the ways in which ecological micro-regions coalesce internally and cohere with one another across distance (ibid.: 123). It makes no sense to think of places in isolation; rather, places (of production, habitation, and exchange) are made and maintained by regional interactions. In turn, regions are not given, but developed through sustained communication. Depending on the logics of such communication, then, regions can at times include places situated at considerable distances from each other while excluding neighboring areas. For the Sahara, we suggest, both the argument of regional specialization and that of intrinsic dependency on exchange hold true over the long term and at present, with perhaps even greater force than in the Mediterranean (but see Horden this volume). As a result, this Sahara as lived, experienced, and imagined by Saharans does not necessarily correspond to its conventional geographic boundaries. Braudel’s Sahara, defined by the distribution of the palm grove (as his Mediterranean was defined by that of the olive), gives way to a more fluid and open space when viewed from the perspective of logics defined from within the region rather than from arbitrary or hydrological lines drawn around it from outside. Indeed, an argument could be made that Saharan regions that make sense both socially and ecologically tend to straddle various ecological zones, linking parts of the desert to lands beyond it.²¹ The boundaries of our area of study cannot be taken for granted from the outset as defined by isohyets or soil composition, but need to be part and parcel of our investigation.

This is, then, the conceptual framework adopted in this book: hence the need for in-depth local studies as a necessary precondition of any further regional analysis (Moussaoui and Oussedik this volume); hence the importance of a historical perspective that alone can illustrate the particular rhythm at which human ecologies develop, change, or remain stable (Schörle, E. A. McDougall, J. McDougall this volume); hence also the necessary questioning of apparently self-evident boundaries, whether political, linguistic, ecological, or ethnic (Leservoisier this volume). Similarly, we need to trace carefully the local importance, regional connections, and actual routes taken by traders, with reference to larger social, political, and ecological patterns that are first and foremost Saharan.²² Ann McDougall (2005a) has argued that most trade in the region was properly Saharan rather than trans-Saharan; research based on local archives (see, e.g., Pascon 1984) bears out her conclusion, as does ethnographic fieldwork in the Algerian south. To the extent that we can judge from the figures available to us, and in marked contrast to the obsession with high-value, low-bulk, long-distance commodities like gold dust or ostrich plumes in most of the trans-Saharan trade literature, up to 80 percent of all Saharan freight was composed of high-bulk staples, intraregional trade goods that made survival in the central Sahara possible (see also Gast 1989). Similarly, contemporary trade first and foremost supplies local markets, and is indeed indispensable for their survival, much as patterns of regional and transregional trade impact the making of place throughout the area (see, e.g., Oudada, Scheele this volume).

In much the same way, regional logics of migration also need to be approached from a local point of view. Migration not only has an important impact on local economies (Marfaing, Choplin this volume), but it also follows and thereby transforms regional patterns of interaction and connectivity (Brachet this volume). More generally, the production of any kind of place in the Sahara is historically dependent on in-migration of some sort, voluntary or not. Beginning in the late twentieth century, many oases and towns in the border regions have experienced exponential demographic growth (Brachet, Badi this volume), at times creating new towns from scratch, and changing local transportation arrangements, trading routes, and political and economic structures, while regional capitals bear the visible and lasting traces of changing patterns of mobility (Choplin, Marfaing this volume). Conversely, notions of place and settlement also need to be investigated with reference to the different forms and functions of mobility past and present, including the significance of the freedom to move across space—or the unfreedom of being fixed in it—and the power relations that are thus expressed (Grémont this volume).

This last point indicates that connectivity in no way connotes unfettered freedom of movement, frictionless surfaces of instant communication, nor the egalitarian, happy-go-lucky free-for-all implied by much of the literature on globalization (e.g., Hannerz 1992; Appadurai 1996; Friedman 2005). On the contrary, where movement and exchange are essential for survival, the denial of the freedom to move is an important means of control and an expression of power. Many ethnographic and historical accounts of Saharan societies point to an intimate connection between the ability to move and local social hierarchies and ethnic boundaries (Cleaveland 2002; Rossi 2009). In the Sahara, as in much of Africa as a whole, people and their labor have often been historically the scarcest resource of all, with local constructions and symbolisms of power being linked to the control of people rather than land (Leservoisier 1994; Grémont, Leservoisier this volume). Slavery, the ability to protect travelers, and the great emphasis locally placed on the depth of genealogical time in constructions of ancestry are aspects of this historical connection between status and potential mobility.

More recently, the imposition of national borders, first by colonial regimes and then by independent nation-states (and their frontier wars or, conversely, their more or less abortive attempts at union), has had a powerful effect on Saharan life, less by interrupting regional networks of interdependence than by restructuring them, as the control of smuggling networks and semi-official trade has created new regional power structures that are dependent on borders—whether they are officially open or closed—and often rely on or feed back into regional states (Scheele, Oudada this volume).²³ People travel within and across the Sahara now as they always have done, but new forms of control, more or less closely related to national policies and international pressures exerted on Maghrebi and West African states, have led to a monopolization of the means of mobility, which are sold dearly to those who find themselves